Is Our Fear of Terrorism Suppressing Our Compassion?

More and more, our national conversation about terrorism is taking on ethnic and religious overtones. That's what fear can do. It substitutes irrationality for prudence, stereotypes for clarity, hysteria for perspective.

But mostly, fear has a way of displacing empathy, and while we must as a nation build up our defenses against the threat of terrorism, we cannot let that anxiety temper the generosity and concern that we Americans have always had for those in need, wherever they may be.

In 1938, with the United States still crawling out of the Great Depression - with unemployment hovering around 19 percent and personal income still 8 percent below 1929 levels - Americans showed their compassion for children a half a world away by supporting a new organization, the China Children's Fund (CCF). It had been created that year as a way for people in the United States to help improve the lives of the thousands of Chinese children impacted by war, foreign children whom they would never meet and whose culture seemed as different as it was distant.

For the empathetic Americans who answered the call of CCF - Americans who had their own challenges on their doorsteps - the birthplace of the children they were helping was not a consideration. Nor was the fact that some had parents who could well have held political or economic views different than Americans. Nor were they concerned about whether these children were being raised as Buddhists or Taoists or some other religion that they were largely unfamiliar with. What they knew is that these children's lives had been shattered by war, and that they needed support and compassion to help them get through their days. No matter how far away.

And yet, our fear of terrorism is threatening that tradition of giving, causing us to turn inward and look suspiciously at those who live far away. My life and my current position have taken me to some of the most remote parts of the world, including to countries like Afghanistan and Somalia, where chaos and disorder at times ruled the streets and where children fell victim to violence in a disproportionate way. What I know from firsthand experience is that amid those circumstances are good and decent people who are victims, caught in struggles to survive not just the danger around them but also the destitution that defines their lives.

ChildFund International's
own tradition extends back to its founding, helping those Chinese children more than 75 years ago. Over the years, our work always has been color-blind. We have embraced children in dozens of foreign countries without a litmus test on religion. Through our decades of helping children grow and develop, we understand that poverty has no religion. It has no ethnicity or nationality but is as indiscriminate as the wind. Children in Indonesia are no less hungry than those in India or Guatemala. Like children everywhere, they want an education; they need healthy food and clean water; and they have the right to be kept safe from violence.

The terror that has taken root in so many places has had a profound impact on children, both directly and indirectly. Those living amid the danger may not understand the politics, but they are particularly intuitive. Even children who have not become refugees can sense their parents' tension as they try to shield their children from the dangers that have invaded their worlds.

All of them need our compassion, more than ever. But a fear of foreign terrorists is emboldening a kind of xenophobia that can serve to suppress our compassion for those who live on distant shores, including some of the world's most vulnerable children.

One of the great pleasures of my job is to meet former ChildFund children as adults and hear the stories of how much being sponsored made a difference in their lives. I met a man recently who grew up in The Gambia and now is the youngest elected official in his country. He recalled vividly the day he learned he had a sponsor. "The world," he thought as a young child, "is full of good people."

Terrorists succeed when they are able to change the perspectives and actions of those "good people." Children around the world are counting on them to fail.